Ku Klux Klan

The Ku Klux Klan (KKK) was and continues to be a US terrorist organisation, formed in 1865 shortly after the end of the American Civil War. At this time, its goal was to oppose the Radical Reconstruction which had given rights to African-Americans. The KKK hoped to restore white supremacy in the South of the country. 

Ku Klux Klan Ku Klux Klan

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Table of contents

    Ku Klux Klan Sensitivity Banner StudySmarter

    There have been three distinct periods of high Klan activity throughout history: the late 1860s to oppose Reconstruction; the early 1920s after the First World War; and the 1950s and 60s during the Civil Rights Movement.

    Ku Klux Klan Beliefs

    One of the fundamental beliefs of the KKK was white supremacy. The KKK used the Bible as a justification for racism, arguing that races could never be equal. As such, they fiercely resisted the idea of interracial mixing. They also subscribed to a 'moral' gender ideology that severely criticised women who attempted to be independent.

    The KKK vowed to protect 'the white race' from its perceived enemies. Its list of enemies evolved in accordance with social circumstances. The KKK was fundamentally anti-black and was against those who helped to expand African-American rights. Other supposed 'enemies' of the KKK included, but were not limited to:

    • Roman Catholics

    • Jews

    • Immigrants

    • Muslims

    • Leftists

    • Atheists

    Ku Klux Klan Ku Klux Klan flag StudySmarterFig. 1 - Ku Klux Klan flag

    Ku Klux Klan Origins

    The KKK was founded in 1865 as a social club in Pulaski, Tennessee. In the summer of 1867, local branches of the Klan met in Tennessee and established an ‘Invisible Empire of the South’. An ex-Confederate general, Nathan Bedford Forrest, became the first leader of the Klan, called the Grand Wizard.

    Ku Klux Klan Nathan Bedford Forrest StudySmarter

    Fig. 2 - Nathan Bedford Forrest.

    The organisation was formed after the defeat of the Confederacy (the South) in the Civil War. The abolition of slavery destroyed the southern way of life, as the economy was dependent on slave-run agriculture. The bombing had caused destruction to major southern cities like Charleston, South Carolina. Defeat by the North meant that Northern laws, such as equal rights for African Americans, were introduced in the South. The Klan was formed in this atmosphere, determined to resist this transformation of the South.

    Why did the Ku Klux Klan rise in popularity?

    The KKK was formed in 1867, the same year as the Reconstruction Acts. These Acts outlined strictly how governments in the South were to be run and introduced measures to outlaw racial discrimination in all spheres of society.

    By 1870, nearly all former Confederate states were controlled by the Republican party. The Republicans worked for Black rights, alienating southern Democrat voters. It was no coincidence that by the same year - 1870 - the KKK had extended into almost all of the former Confederate states. The KKK rose in popularity because it offered an avenue outside of the legal system for white Southerners to re-establish white supremacy.

    Between the late 1860s and the early 1870s, the Klan was very influential and, in some places, became an invisible government. They were most powerful in areas where African-Americans were a minority or a small majority, such as South Carolina.

    Attempts had been made to tackle the KKK since its emergence, but these were unsuccessful for a number of reasons. In areas of high Klan activity, law enforcement officials either refused to act against the Klan or were members themselves. It was difficult to find witnesses who would testify against Klan members, due to fear, sympathy, or simply the inability to recognise them due to their costumes. The Klan was very powerful, as shown by Tennessee Governor William Brownlow’s attempt to infiltrate the organisation with spies, which resulted in their brutal murders.

    Ku Klux Klan Violence

    The KKK directed attacks at both Republican politicians and black institutions such as schools and churches. Members usually carried out attacks at night and in disguise. However, it was more common for them to wear costumes from folk traditions rather than the white robes and hats which came to symbolise the group. Members wore hoods and sometimes robes, but it was not until the revival of the KKK that the organisation adopted its infamous look.

    Ku Klux Klan KKK Initiation ceremony StudySmarterFig. 3 - Dr Samuel Green, KKK Grand Dragon, and some children at an initiation ceremony in Atlanta, Georgia, 24 July 1948.

    Examples of KKK violent activity during this first wave of Klan activity include:

    • During the 1867–68 constitutional conventions, around 10% of the black legislators elected were victims of violence, and seven were killed.

    • In 1871, 500 masked men attacked a Union county jail in South Carolina and lynched eight black prisoners.

    • In 1872, local Klan leaders and members rode a float in the Memphis Mardi Gras parade and staged a mock lynching of a man in blackface.

    This first wave finally came to an end in 1871 with the Ku Klux Klan Act. Republican President Ulysses Grant used federal troops to suppress the Klan. Whilst this measure was effective against the KKK, this use of federal authority outraged Southerners.

    Ku Klux Klan Portrait of President Ulysses S. Grant StudySmarterFig. 4 - Official White House portrait of President Ulysses S. Grant, 1875.

    Ku Klux Klan History Revival

    Despite the Ku Klux Klan Act in 1871, the KKK would be revived in the early twentieth century. It was first revived in Georgia in 1915. By the mid-20s, the Klan reached its peak membership. Some events that motivated the rebirth of the KKK were:

    1. Anti-black sentiment

    In the 1890s, the populist People’s Party became a major force in the South and the Midwest as it represented the interests of agriculture workers. Attempts to create a coalition of blacks and poor whites against owners, landholders, and elites, were met with outrage from the aristocracy, who championed white supremacy. This riled up anti-black sentiment in both the aristocracy and many poor whites.

    The 1890s also saw the enforcement of racial segregation and an increase in violence against African-Americans. At this time, lynchings became common.

    1. Immigration

    After the dismantling of the KKK, there was large-scale immigration to the US. Industrialisation led to the creation of large numbers of both skilled and unskilled jobs, and around 23 million people entered the country, with huge opposition from many Americans.

    There was a fear that the US was being taken over by ‘aliens’, and this was reflected by the American Protective Association. Formed in 1887, the group set the stage for the return of the KKK in the Midwest.

    1. The First World War

    The First World War led to an increase in nationalism across Europe. It also led to a resurgence of white American nationalism in the South.


    The identification with one's nation and advocation of its interests, sometimes at the expense of other nations.

    The below quote describes how these factors led to the revival of the Klan, and more generally what conditions precipitate its rise and fall.

    The Klan is strong when its leaders are able to capitalize on social tensions and the fears of white people; as its popularity escalates and its fanaticism leads to violence, there is greater scrutiny by law enforcement, the press and government; the Klan loses whatever public acceptance it had; and disputes within the ranks finally destroy its effectiveness as a terrorist organization."

    - Sue Mahan and Pamala L. Griset, 20031

    William Simmons led the new KKK, and although the basis of the group remained the same, there were many differences. For one, it was not only anti-black but also against Roman Catholics, Jews, Asians, immigrants, nightclubs, pre and extra-marital sex, and any ‘anti-American’ behaviour.’

    Later, under the new leadership of Hiram Wesley Evans, the Klan’s campaign of terrorism took over many communities. They used lynchings, shootings, whippings, and cross-burnings to spread terror. Though targets were usually Black, Jewish, Catholic, or immigrants, it was not uncommon for the KKK to target those they considered ‘immoral’, such as women who sought independence.

    Ku Klux Klan Cross-burning by the KKK StudySmarterFig. 5 - Cross-burning by the KKK in 2005

    Notable Klan events in this period include:

    • In 1922, Klansman Earl Mayfield was elected to the US Senate.

    • The Klan assisted with electing governors in 12 states.

    • 40,000 Klansmen paraded in Washington DC in August 1925.

    What caused the second decline of the Klan?

    In a similar way to the first decline, support dropped after issues of the Klan were solved. Laws were introduced in this period to limit immigration, which reduced the worries of many members. There were also a series of scandals that affected public opinion of the KKK.

    The first of these was in 1925 when a prominent member of the Klan was found guilty of kidnapping and raping a young girl. The second was in 1927 when members in Pennsylvania broke away from the Klan. Evans fought them in court, which resulted in witness accounts of horrific violence and the revealing of inside information.

    The Klan did not disappear and continued to operate throughout the 1930s and 1940s but faced major hostility and was less effective in its efforts to reinstate white supremacy. The organisation was disbanded in 1944 but would once again re-emerge in the 1950s.

    Ku Klux Klan summary of the activity during the Civil Rights Movement

    The Klan was finally revived following two important attempts at equality in America: the Supreme Court’s order of desegregation in schools and the emergence of the Civil Rights Movement. By 1958 it had up to 15,000 members.

    In 1960, Robert Shelton became the new Grand Wizard and formed the United Klans of America. The United Klans coordinated the beatings of freedom riders – those who rode buses throughout the South to protest racial inequalities. The Klan also began to use bombs. They bombed Dr Martin Luther King Jr.’s home in 1956. Another notorious attack occurred in 1963, in what was called the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing. This attack killed four young black girls.

    By 1965, the total membership reached 50,000 members. The same year, the FBI had infiltrated branches of the Klan and were receiving intelligence, which helped to prevent some violence and arrest some Klansmen. The FBI however, was criticised due to informant involvement in Klan crimes.

    President Lyndon Johnson condemned the KKK in 1965 and announced the arrest of Klansmen for the murder of a white civil rights worker. Two Klan leaders, including Shelton, subsequently spent a year in prison after being found guilty of being in contempt of Congress, meaning they obstructed the work of a congressional committee, specifically by refusing to hand over membership details.

    After this, the organisation became fragmented, with some aligning themselves with neo-Nazis or other extremists. A former neo-Nazi, David Duke, formed the Knights of the Ku Klux Klan in 1975. They became very popular after portraying the organisation as a ‘white civil rights’ group, which led to a rise in Klan membership. The KKK continued to be influential for a time, but by the late 1980s, it was once again declining.

    The Klan still operates today, with a membership of around 8,000 people across the US. However, it no longer exercises the same influence it once had.

    Ku Klux Klan - Key takeaways

    • The KKK initially emerged in the 1870s and sought to protect the system of white supremacy in the South.
    • The decline of the first wave of Klan activity was caused by the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871.
    • The Klan reached its peak membership in the mid-1920s after re-emerging due to sentiment against black rights and ‘aliens.’
    • The KKK was brutally violent and engaged in whippings and lynchings, and later would conduct bombings during the 1960s Civil Rights Movement.


    1. Sue Mahan and Pamala L. Griset, Terrorism in Perspective, 3rd ed (USA: SAGE Publications, 2013).
    2. Fig. 1 - KKK Flag (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Flag_of_the_Ku_Klux_Klan.svg) by KAMiKAZOW (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/User:KAMiKAZOW) Licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en)
    3. Fig. 3 - Dr Samuel Green, Ku Klux Klan Grand Dragon and a few children at an initiation ceremony in Atlanta, Georgia. July 24, 1948 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Children_with_Dr._Samuel_Green,_Ku_Klux_Klan_Grand_Dragon,_July_24,_1948.jpg) by Image Editor (https://www.flickr.com/people/11304375@N07) Licensed by CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/deed.en)
    4. Fig. 5 - Cross Burning by KKK (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Cross_Lighting_2005.jpg) by Confederate till Death (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/User:Confederate_till_Death) Licensed by CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/deed.en)
    Frequently Asked Questions about Ku Klux Klan

    Does the Ku Klux Klan exist today?

    Yes, the Klan still operates today, with a membership of 5000-8000 people across the US.

    What does Ku Klux Klan mean?

    It is generally accepted that the name Ku Klux Klan is derived from the Greek word kyklos, meaning circle. This inspired the ‘Ku Klux’ element. Klan was added as a variation on clan for the sake of alliteration. Members of the group have said the name means ‘White Racial Brotherhood’.

    Who are the Ku Klux Klan?

    The Ku Klux Klan is a US-based terrorist group with a white supremacist agenda.

    When did the Ku Klux Klan start?

    The Ku Klux Klan was founded in 1865 after the American Civil War as a social club in Pulaski, Tennessee.

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