07 August 2012

True origins of the Ku Klux Klan, 1866-71

The original history of the Ku Klux Klan is difficult to pin down with certainty. Some of the confusion for a non-American like myself comes from the KKK being a vehicle for white southern resistance to the Republican Party's Reconstruction-era policies. These policies aimed at establishing political and economic equality for blacks.

The Congress did pass legislation designed to curb Klan terrorism! But in time the Klan saw its primary goal, the re-establishment of white supremacy, fulfilled through Demo­cratic victories in states across the South in the 1870s. Intuitively I would have guessed that Republicans would have been anti-black and Democrats would have been pro-Reconstruction. Wrongly guessed, I must add.

The ADL noted that six college students had founded the Ku Klux Klan by mid 1866 in the town of Pulaski, Tennessee. Former Confederate officers, the six young men organised it as a social club and spent their time in laddish horseplay of various types. They were surprised to learn that their nightly appearances were causing fear, particularly among former slaves in the area; thus the group began a rapid expansion almost accidentally.

Eyewitness to History agreed that only 8 months after the South’s surrender, the Tennessee boys held meetings that were secret and devoted to elab­orate ceremonies. Members would disguise themselves with a costume made up of a sheet to cover their bodies, fanciful masks to hide their faces and pointed headgear that heightened their stature. The appearance of these white-sheeted, horse-mounted apparitions on the town’s murky streets naturally and purposefully created terror amongst the community’s recently freed slaves. This version of history proposed that the KKK was a ruthless vigilance organisation almost from the beginning, whose role was to restore white supremacy at any cost. Nothing was accidental.

Spartacus Educational firmly located the creation of the KKK in a broader political commitment to keep blacks out of mainstream society. In Feb and March 1866 the President himself, Andrew Johnson (in office 1865–69), vetoed the civil rights bills that were designed to protect freed slaves from racist Southern Black Codes. This theory suggests that the KKK might have been young and boisterous, but they were not thinking of anything more extremist than the President’s own rather extremist views. The timing is persuasive – the KKK was emerging in the first six months of 1866!

Factions formed in different towns, which led to a meeting in April 1867 to codify rules and organisational structure. Former Confederate General Nathan Bedford Forrest was elected Grand Wizard of all the Klan. The organisation was divided into a number of realms, dominions, provinces and dens, which were in turn led by leaders at a lower level.

Reconstruction DID try to extend the rights of Southern blacks but it actually pushed many resentful and anxious white ex-soldiers into the Klan. So the Klan quickly began instituting a systematic policy of violence in opposition to the new social order. Former slaves were the obvious target of this terror­ism, but the Klan also intimidated and killed Northern teachers, judges and politicians. By late 1867, the movement had spread throughout the small towns of the South, though it flourished mostly in rural regions. Some called it the Invisible Empire of the South.

Klansmen began waging guerilla warfare against what they perceived as a corrupt system that was depriving them of rights. This feeling of grievance, which began during the time of the first Klan, characterised Klan sensibility and ideology throughout the 20th century.

By 1869, internal strife led Klansmen to fight against each other as competing factions struggled for control. The Klan's increasing reputation for violence led the more prominent citizens to drop out, and more louts began to fill the ranks. Local branches proved very diff­icult to monitor and direct. Forrest angrily formally disbanded the organisation in 1869 and the vast majority of local groups followed his lead. Some number of local units continued to operate, but were eventually disbanded or sent into hiding by federal troops.

In 1871 Congress passed the Ku Klux Klan Act authorising the use of federal troops in the Klan’s suppression and for the trial of its members in federal court. But I still cannot tell from the histories if white KKK members were ever gaoled for lynching blacks and their supporters.

Thomas Nast created a number of memorable and serious works in caricature during the Civil War-Reconstruction era, which were published in Harper's Weekly. Nast strongly opposed President Andrew Johnson and his Reconstruction policy, and showed how groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and the White League used every form of terror, violence and intimidation to restore a White Man’s Government and redeem the noble Lost Cause.

Cartoon ridiculing both freed black men voting for the first time, and resentful, disenfranchised former Confederates, 
by Thomas Nast
Harpers Weekly, 1867.

One Vote Less. An African-American killed by the Ku Klux Klan. 
Drawn by Nast in Harper's Weekly, August 1868.

The First Klan Revival did not occur until 1915 when William J Sim mons adopted a mythic vision of a noble and pristine antebellum South, with a deep hatred of blacks. His timing, near Atlanta Georgia, was perfect. The United States was struggling to meet the challenges imposed by a massive influx of non-Protestant immigrants, many of whom were Catholic or Jewish and few of whom spoke English as their native language. Appealing to the middle class and claiming to be a purely benevolent club, the Klan drew members immediately. Again!

By 1921, the Klan numbered c100,000 members and money flooded its bank accounts. At its peak in 1924, 40,000 uniformed Klansmen paraded through Washington DC during the Democratic National Convention. Like a modern political lobby, the group was so influential that many politicians felt com pelled to court it or even to join, particularly in the Midwestern states. As the Klan grew, so did the number and intensity of barbarous acts committed by its members.

The KKK became well known for its anti-Semitic, anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant and anti-labour philosophies. But I have not discussed this other ugly side of Klan practices because they weren't so prevalent in the 1866-71 era. Certainly the boycotts of local businesses owned by Catholics and Jews really got going only after World War One.


Jane and Lance Hattatt said...

Hello Hels:
How extraordinary that such a sinister organization should have started life in a relatively innocent way and that, for a short time, it was no more than a boys' club. That it should have grown in the way it did is fairly amazing, and somewhat frightening. But then the same may be said for many other organizations in recent history and, alarmingly, the present day.

Kiwi Riverman's Blogesphere said...

That was a very interesting post about some of the devils henchmen. Sometimes historical events start in an obscure way. Boys club indeed!

Hels said...


That is so true. I read history for both professional reasons and for pleasure, and think I have read it all. Then a story like this pops up!

student of history said...

I did history at school and uni, but never did American history. So it is all new to me. Just one question. Is it Ku or Klu?

Andrew said...

I'm not and have never been a student of American history but that was very interesting. Isn't it odd that the white supremacists are dominant in 'black' states.

Hels said...

Jane and Lance,

Two factors seem relevant to your accurate observations. Firstly the ex soldiers had been fighting a hideous and destructive civil war i.e against their own fathers, neighbours and friends. Secondly they were on the losing side and as a result, they saw their long held values overturned and rubbished by the victors.

They were unemployed, bored, angry at the North and incredulous at the newly won freedoms of their own (ex) slaves.

No wonder boyish pranks turned nasty.

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Hels said...

student of history

I have done no American history either, so I am relying on Susan Campbell Bartoletti. In her book "They Called Themselves the K.K.K.: The Birth of an American Terrorist Group", she uses Ku. But I too have seen both spellings.

Hels said...


and isn't it interesting that southern Democrats were the pro-slavery half of the party, opposed to both the anti-slavery Republicans and the very anti-slavery Northern Democrats. I cannot get my mind around some of this material!

jeronimus said...

It's so strange that many people equate Islam with terrorism, when the numbers of white "Christian" terrorists over the last hundred years or more have far outnumbered any other, probably by a factor of 100 or more. The recent shooting spree by a white supremacist in a Sikh temple is yet another example.

Parnassus said...

Up From Slavery, the autobiography of the great Negro educator Booker T. Washington, gives some further historical perspective. He shows how the Klan had earlier roots in 'patrollers', "bands of white men--usually young men--who were
organized largely for the purpose of regulating the conduct of the
slaves at night." Washington also points out that some of the Reconstructionists tried to punish the South by placing Blacks in political office, fueling the situation.

Washington's reaction to all this was not more violence; he realized that education was the key to more respect and a better life for Blacks, and he ended up founding the Tuskegee Institute, a Black college.

As an aside, the early history of the Klan left its mark on British literature in Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes story, The Five Orange Pips, which dramatized its secret and vicious rituals.
--Road to Parnassus

Hels said...


*nod* The KKK were not just pro-Christian... they were violently Christian. But even then, they were almost as anti-Catholic as they were anti-black and anti-Jewish. What a bizarre view of Christianity!

Hels said...


thank you. If the 6 original KKK members were Patrollers themselves or knew the Patrollers personally, we would have to ask just how spontaneous and laddish the early KKK really was. They may have carefully organised themselves to control and punish the recently freed slaves.

I will have to have another look at Conan Doyle :)

Hels said...


welcome aboard :)

Emm said...

What a fascinating post Hels. I'm aware of KKK actions last century but had no idea they rose up a full 100 years before that. The more I learn about American history, the more fascinating I find it, especially that of the Southern States.

Hels said...



The impact of war with neighbouring nations on a society always seems to be tragic, but most nations recover. What I hadn't thought about enough was the impact of civil war - the bitterness and divisiveness remain perhaps forever.

Emm said...

Definitely. I think many people feel very strongly about that war and its gains and losses to this day.

ChrisJ said...

My understanding is that the Republican and Democratic Parties have both changed radically over the years - 180 degrees in some cases.

Scary that the KKK still exists and is supposedly gaining new members and that white supremacist groups are flourishing. (The shooting at the Sikh temple in Wisconsin a few days ago was by a white supremacist.)

I think hatred is always fuelled by poor economies and boredom - people seem to need a scapegoat.

Hels said...


it seems that you are totally correct re the Republican and Democratic Parties changing VERY radically since the late 19th century.

I never thought of myself as being learned about the American Civil War or the Reconstruction era. But it still doesn't make sense to me that President Andrew Johnson, a Democratic Senator from Tennessee, was pro-slavery and largely anti-Reconstruction.

It seems as if the hatreds were long standing, but they were unleashed in a shocking period of civil war, destroyed economies and a massive clash of values.

BBC History Magazine said...

Why was the town of Pulaski Tennessee involved? Bitterly divided between supporters and opponents of slavery, Tennessee had nevertheless sided with the Confederate South in the American Civil War. Pulaski itself, on a major crossroads near the border with Alabama, was a slave-holding town, surrounded by splendid plantations. And since newly liberated slaves made up half of its population, the mood among the town’s white citizens was a toxic mixture of anger and fear. Among the men gathering in Pulaski that winter were six former soldiers in their mid 20s, all of whom had fought bravely for the Confederacy. These young men were far from mindless thugs; but now they were downhearted by the South’s defeat and bored. There were no jobs and no opportunities.

So you are correct. At first their club had no overt political purpose. Their point was to have fun, make mischief and play pranks on the public.

BBC History Magazine, 1 Dec 2016

Hels said...

Thank you.

I can imagine that after the devastating war, young ex-servicemen facing unemployment, anger and boredom would have been looking for some opportunities for fun. But if Pulaski was a divided town (both politically and racially), then those six lads would have definitely understood the terror they were creating for the newly liberated slaves in town.

Perhaps the six ex-soldiers did not understand the anti-black fear amongst the town's whites that they were playing into.