When the majority of people think of the Ku Klux Klan, there undoubtedly comes to mind a relic of post-Confederate racism that has now morphed into dangerous groups of rabidly anti-Black Southerners dressed in white hoods, burning crosses and waving Confederate Battle Flags. However, the real story of the White Knights of the Invisible Empire, as they were also referred to, goes far beyond the current stereotypes, as well as extending well above the Mason-Dixon Line into every State in the nation. It is, of course, true that the Klan did initially originate in the South during the infamous twelve-year Reconstruction period following the War Between the States, but the history of the organization is actually divided into three very separate and quite distinct periods.
The first of the three Klans originated in Tennessee on December 24, 1865, at the home of a Pulaski attorney, Thomas Martin, as a Confederate veteran’s fraternal club called the Pulaski Circle. The group was formed by Captain John C. Lester of that city and five fellow officers from the area, James R. Crowe, J. Calvin Jones, John B. Kennedy, Frank O. McCord and Richard R. Reed, all of whom being well educated and came from formerly wealthy Tennessee families. Like other fraternal orders of those days, such as the Sons of Malta, a series of intricate initiation and meeting rituals, as well as fanciful costumes, were devised by one of the six, Frank McCord. In later years, Captain Lester became an attorney and a member of the Tennessee State Legislature, as well as collaborating with Reverend D. L. Wilson of Virginia in writing an article for Century Magazine defending some of the subsequent actions by the club. By that time though, the name of the organization had been changed to Ku Klux from the Greek word for circle, kuklos, with clan being substituted for club and spelled with a “K” for alliteration. In 1884, Lester and Reverend Wilson also wrote a history of the original group called “The Ku Klux Klan . . . Its Origin, Growth and Disbandment.”
The concept begun by the Pulaski Circle and the name Ku Klux Klan were soon taken up by groups of Confederate veterans in Tennessee and then spread to other areas of the South. Within two years, an effort was made in a meeting at the Maxwell House Hotel in Nashville to unite the various groups into a unified and centralized organization with a national headquarters and a group of elected officers. A set of principles was drawn up by former Brigadier General George Gordon from Pulaski, and another Tennesseean, famed cavalry commander Lieutenant General Nathan Bedford Forrest, was chosen as the Ku Klux Klan’s national leader . . . the grand wizard. The call for unity was never really accepted and for the most part the diverse local Klan groups retained their independent status, as well as their own local agendas . . . many of which had by that time evolved into violent vigilante actions against the Union occupiers. The defeated Confederates viewed the North’s effort to “reconstruct” the South as nothing more than an act of retribution, rather than one of reconciliation and actual reconstruction. There was, of course, ample justification for such feelings due to both the highly oppressive military rule of the Union Army, much of it with troops who were former slaves, and the widespread depredations being inflicted on various levels of Southern society by the two auxiliaries of the Republican Party, the Loyal and Union Leagues, as well as the hordes of vulture-like Northern profiteers, the carpetbaggers, who poured into the South to feed on the spoils of war.
Within a year of its founding as a simple fraternal order, many of the half million members in the various Klan groups had begun resorting to virtual guerrilla warfare as a countermeasure to the North’s occupation. By the end of 1868, the Klan and similar groups like the Knights of the White Camellia had reportedly committed more that two thousand murders, as well as many thousands of other brutal personal attacks such as whippings, brandings and castrations. General Forrest and the other Klan leaders deplored the violence and called for an end to such acts, as well as ordering that all masks and costumes be abolished and destroyed. When these pleas were ignored by the ungovernable groups, Forrest resigned as head of the Klan in January of 1869 and privately worked to restore order. Forrest also renounced his connection with the Klan a few years later and in a letter to Governor John Brown of Tennessee he wrote of his willingness “to exterminate the white marauders who disgrace their race by the cowardly murder of Negroes.” The former Klan leader even went further in 1875 when he publicly advocated the admission of Black students by Southern universities. The Federal courts and the Southern States themselves, as well as popular opinion throughout the South also began to move against the Klan groups and by 1871, they had all but vanished as viable organizations.
Just as Northerner Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 abolitionist novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” had been one of the sparks that helped ignite the flames of war in 1861, a trilogy based on the Ku Klux Klan by Thomas Dixon, Jr. of North Carolina, did much to revive the dormant Klan in 1915. The three Dixon books were “The Leopard’s Spots” in 1902, “The Clansman” in 1905” and “The Traitor” in 1907, with “The Clansman” alone selling over a million copies and having by far the greatest impact on public opinion. This was helped even further when Dixon turned his novel into a highly popular play of the same name a few months after the book’s publication. The production toured not only the South but the entire Mid-West and East Coast as well and while the play received some harsh criticism, it played to packed theaters wherever it was performed. The work’s greatest effect, however, came a decade later when movie director D. W. Griffith, the son of a Confederate colonel from Kentucky, made film history with his adaptation of the book in the silent epic, “The Birth of a Nation.” Griffith’s motion picture managed to evoke such vivid memories of the Reconstruction period that when the film was seen in Atlanta, Georgia, by a Spanish-American War veteran from Alabama, William J. Simmons, he vowed to revive the Klan. On November 25th of that year, Thanksgiving Day, Simmons and fourteen other soon-to-be Knights of the Ku Klux Klan climbed nearby Stone Mountain to create a rebirth of the organization. The group adopted as its motto the Latin phrase “non silba, sed anthar” . . . not for self, but for others . . . and while cross burning was not one of the original Klan rituals, it had been used as such in both Dixon’s book and the “Birth of a Nation, and the group lit a cross that evening atop the mountain to announce the start of a new Invisible Empire.
America, both South and North, had, of course, undergone many changes by the early part of the Twentieth Century. While discrimination toward African-Americans, both de jure and de facto, was still generally the order of the day throughout the country, new prejudices had arisen in the minds of those who wished to see the United States remain mainly a white, protestant and Anglo-Saxon nation. Many felt that some sort of bulwark must be raised to stem the rising tide of immigrants then pouring into the country from the Mediterranean area and Eastern Europe . . . most of whom were either Catholic or Jewish. Added to this was the fast-growing public sentiment to bring about the mandatory prohibition of alcoholic beverages. The reborn Klan saw in all this an opportunity to play a role as the nation’s savior and besides its advocation of white supremacy, the new group added Catholics, Jews and immigrants to the list of dangers against which they said America must be protected. The many Protestant ministers who were now taking part in Klan activities turned the organization toward the goal of national prohibition as well. In the early 1920s, many in the nation also saw Soviet-style communism and Asian immigration as perceived threats to what they regarded as the American way of life, and Klan propaganda was quick to include terms like “red scare” and “yellow peril” in its xenophobic lexicon. All of these sentiments resonated with many like-minded Americans all across the nation, and like the nativist American, or Know-Nothing, Party of the mid-Nineteen Century which espoused many of the same themes, the Klan also became a strong national force. The resurrected Klan that had risen in Georgia in 1915 with a handful of members soon grew to thousands in the South and then marched into the North where the membership expanded into the millions, all carrying the Stars and Stripes rather than the Confederate Battle Flag and singing such songs as the 1923 melody from Pennsylvania, “We Are All Loyal Klansmen.”
By the year 1926, the Klan’s total membership was as high as six million, with the majority now well above the Mason-Dixon Line and extending from New England to the Northwest. While the single greatest concentration of Klan members in a Northern State were the quarter million in Indiana, the five New England States combined had twice that number. Maine alone had over a hundred fifty thousand members, with another hundred thirty thousand in Massachusetts where, in Salem, a well-known jewelry maker, Daniel Low and Company, produced Klan belt buckles designed by an English-born Evangelical minister in New York, Branford Clarke, who also wrote a number pro-Klan books. Elsewhere, over sixty thousand people joined the Klan in New Jersey, with tens of thousands more in neighboring New York and Pennsylvania. Of the more than seventy thousand Klan members in Michigan, half of them were in Detroit and in Ohio, Summit County’s fifty thousand members was the most for any county in America. Almost every State west of the Mississippi River also had large Klan memberships, with Colorado’s hundred thousand being the highest and over thirty-five thousand more in Oregon. In fact, the only states in the western part of the country where Klan membership was less than half a percent of the State’s population were Minnesota, New Mexico and North Dakota.
The political power of the organization throughout America in the 1920s was also a force with which to be reckoned and even as early as 1919, the recently reborn Klan was able to add its influence to the passage of the National Prohibition Act, better know as the Volstead Act. This legislation was introduced in Congress in June of that year and in only four months was ratified as the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution. Five years later, the Klan’s lobbying effort managed to push through the National Origins Act of 1924 which placed highly restrictive quotas on any immigrants who might be considered “undesirable,” including ten thousand Jews from Eastern Europe who had already obtained valid U. S. entry visas. The law also banned any immigration by Japanese, which brought about the resignation of Ambassador Hanihara, the boycotting of American products and demonstrations in Japan, and the bitter enmity that ultimately led to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor.
During the mid-1920s, the Klan was also highly effective in local, State and Federal elections, with many of its members, or those who were supported by the Klan, being elected to office, including sixteen U. S. senators, seventy-five members of the House of Representatives, eleven governors and hundreds of State, county and city officials. Furthermore, even though Klan membership in the North had fallen to less than four hundred thousand by 1928, its anti-Catholic message was still so strongly felt that it was instrumental in stopping the presidential bid of America’s first Catholic candidate, Democrat Alfred E. Smith, who could not even carry his home State of New York where he had served four terms as governor. It should also be pointed out that the original home of the Klan, the cotton-belt States of the deep South, was the area that gave Al Smith sixty-four of the eighty-seven electoral votes he received to Republican Herbert Hoover’s four hundred forty-four. The only Northern States to vote for the Catholic candidate were Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
Besides politics and the mass rallies and parades that brought out thousands of marchers, such as the thirty thousand who paraded in the nation’s Capital in 1925, the Klan of the 1920s was also generally considered as just another social group. The chapters in each area that were known as Klaverns organized a wide variety of activities, such as the so-called “klanbakes” to which the general public was invited. Not only were open lectures and symposiums on the Klan also held throughout the country, many led by Protestant ministers, but the Klan sponsored all manner of social events as well, such as farm clubs, local festivals, sewing circles, weddings, automobile road rallies and even beautiful baby contests. In sports, some Klaverns organized bowling leagues and basketball and baseball teams and as early as 1917, a Klan basketball team played a game against a local high school in Patchogue, New York. Perhaps the most unusual sporting events in which the Klan participated were two baseball games, one taking place at Island Park in Wichita, Kansas, on June 21, 1925, where the Klan team played against a local all-Black team, the Monrovians . . . a game the Klan lost ten to eight. The second game for the record books was played at the Arlington Horse Show Grounds outside Washington, D. C., on Labor Day the following year, and there a Klan team played an all-Jewish team, the Hebrew All-Stars. Even though the game was called in the sixth inning due to rain, the Klan won this one four to nothing.
After 1930, the Klan again went into virtual hibernation until the 1950s when small groups using several variations of the name Ku Klux Klan began to emerge in areas of the South following the start of the civil rights movement. Such groups were but pale shadows of the once powerful, well-organized Klan that had influenced much of American life and politics in the 1920s. Today these groups continue to be nothing more than small, individual White supremacist bands that collectively total no more than a few thousand members, and have no real agenda other than opposing whatever they might consider to be a racial threat to themselves. As in Charlottesville, Virginia, last year, they also attempt to infiltrate legitimate protest rallies in order to exacerbate the situation, as well as garner headlines for themselves. In this, the media bears much of the responsibility for giving such groups the front-page publicity they certainly do not deserve. This, of course, has long been the case with the press, such as when tiny hate groups of sixty years ago like George Lincoln Rockwell’s minuscule American Nazi Party in Virginia and James Madole’s insignificant National Renaissance Party in New York, as well as the dozen or so malcontents in California who made up the so-called Symbionese Liberation Army were each treated as if they were national movements that actually posed a potential danger to the country. Had these groups not received such massive and unwarranted media attention, they undoubtedly would have soon become extinct . . . just as the current delusional image of a latter-day Invisible Empire should also be.