The Ku Klux Klan

Roundup: Talking About History

From the Daily Telegraph (Sydney, Australia) June 23, 2004:

Like a scene from a nightmare, horsemen dressed in long white sheets and conical hats launched a reign of terror in the southern states of the US in the years immediately after the Civil War.

To newly emancipated slaves, the night riders represented the ghosts of Confederate dead, risen from their battlefield graves to take up arms again. From its early, primitive beginnings, few groups have generated such fascination, terror and mystery as the Ku Klux Klan. Dedicated to violence, bigotry, political intrigue and manipulation, the Klan encouraged Americans to protect themselves from those deemed to be"unacceptable". Falling into that category were blacks, Jews and Catholics.

The Klan also preached against"dope, bootlegging, graft, nightclubs and road houses, violation of the Sabbath, unfair business dealings and sex and scandalous behaviour". The fact that many of its key members broke several or all of those rules was responsible for the ebb and flow of Klan membership over the decades.

By the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan was a political force to be reckoned with, boasting a membership of between three and four million. By the end of the decade it was almost defunct, ripped asunder not by its dedication to lynchings and vigilantism but by political corruption and a series of financial and sexual scandals involving its leadership. Yet the Klan managed to rise again, as it had on a number of occasions dating from the organisation's founding in the township of Pulaski, Tennessee, near the border with Alabama, in 1866.

It began as little more than a joke, a fraternal gathering by six university students who had served as officers in the Confederate army in what is still regarded in the southern states as the"war of northern aggression".

Embittered by the Union victory, the group wore disguises and galloped around the town at night, like later generations of bored young men in their cars. They were surprised to learn their appearances caused fear, particularly among former slaves, and took advantage of the fears and superstitions of the black population.

By April, 1867, the Klan had become organised for the first time, with its own language and commands. The flowing white sheets, white face masks and conical hats made of cardboard became part of the official uniform. General Nathan Bedford Forrest, a famed Confederate cavalry leader, became leader of the group and was known as the Grand Wizard.

The name Ku Klux Klan was taken from kuklos, the Greek word for circle, an ancient symbol of unity. The word Klan was added purely for alliteration. The Klan was divided into realms, dominions, provinces and dens, led by grand dragons, titans, giants and cyclopses.

Government reconstruction policies -- which aimed to extend the rights of southern blacks -- pushed hundreds of resentful war veterans into the Klan, which soon began to institute a policy of violence in opposition to the new social order. For the next two years, Klansmen tortured and killed blacks and sympathetic whites alike.

Former slaves were obvious targets but the Klan also harassed, intimidated and sometimes killed northern teachers, judges and politicians. But because of the violence, prominent citizens who had joined the Klan began to drop out.

In 1869, Forrest resigned as grand wizard and disbanded the Klan but it rose again in 1915, mainly as a small-town rural mix of bigotry and narrow-mindedness. William J. Simmonds, a former religious minister, reorganised it after seeing the film Birth of a Nation, D.W. Griffith's silent film classic, which depicted Klansmen as heroic saviours of old southern society.

When it opened in Atlanta, Simmonds published a recruiting advertisement for the Klan alongside an ad for the film. It immediately drew new members from the ranks of those frightened by the new influx of immigrants into the US, many Jews and Catholics among them.

The Klan craved respectability. By the early 1920s, Klansmen were elected to positions of political power in Texas, Oklahoma, Indiana, Oregon and Maine. In 1924, 40,000 hooded members marched through the streets of Washington DC during the Democratic National Convention.

The Klan embraced modern advertising techniques, drawing attention to itself by searchlights illuminating white-robed horsemen and aircraft flying overhead bearing a fiery cross.

By now it was so influential that many politicians, including senators, congressmen, governors and judges, signed up. In Atlanta, Klansmen ran the police, the law courts and the city council. Coca-Cola, Atlanta's largest company, soon to become an American icon, paid for advertisements in Klan publications.

It is said that President Warren G. Harding took his membership oath inside the White House. A young Harry S. Truman, later to become president, was among the new recruits, although he resigned shortly afterwards in disgust at the Klan's anti-Catholic bias.

As the Klan grew, so did its violence and many were repelled by the anomaly of a group supposedly dedicated to law and order taking part in lynchings and other anti-social activities.

By 1930, membership collapsed, while many of its leaders succumbed to the age-old weaknesses of greed, lust and drink. It was disbanded in 1944.

The Civil Rights movement of the 1960s led to a revival of Klan-type organisations, which attacked blacks and civil-rights workers. Pressure was put on blacks not to vote. In Mississippi in 1960, 42per cent of the population was black but only 2per cent was registered to vote, so the Klan's tactics had a degree of success....

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