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The First KKK

The Ku Klux Klan, a terror organization, gained political footing during Reconstruction in the postbellum South.


  • The Ku Klux Klan was a white supremacist terrorist group that emerged during Reconstruction. It took violent steps to undermine the Republican party, hoping to maintain black economic instability and ensure white racial and economic superiority in the postwar South.
  • Congress countered the KKK with the Force Acts and the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, which made Klan violence and political intimidation illegal under federal law.
  • Republicans lost hold within the South largely due to Klan violence, allowing the South to maintain a ruling racial order that morphed into Jim Crow.

The First KKK

In 1866, General Nathan Bedford Forrest founded the Ku Klux Klan in Tennessee as a “social club.” The name was supposedly derived from the Greek word “kyklos,” meaning circle. The Klan was not maintained by a centralized national organization, but instead, operated as a network of local terrorist groups. The Klan referred to themselves as the “Invisible Empire of the South,” spearheading an underground movement against Republicanism and Reconstruction in the hopes of maintaining white supremacy in the post-war South.
General Nathan Bedford Forrest. Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
The Klan committed acts of violence primarily undercover, wearing the disguise of a long, flowing white robe and hood, capped by horns. They sometimes claimed to be ghosts of Confederate soldiers.
The Klan primarily performed heinous crimes against African Americans, especially those running for office in the South. In addition, many white Republicans and sympathizers were also targets of Klan violence. It is estimated that the KKK performed over 3500 racially-motivated lynchings in the South between 1865 and 1900. Furthermore, white Republicans who sympathized with African Americans, decried as “carpetbaggers” and “scalawags,” were frequently attacked.
Democrats relied on the Klan to secure election victories, as Klansmen oftentimes threatened or killed competing Republican candidates. Many southern Republicans actually abandoned their campaigns due to the inability to hold meetings and attract voters while living in constant fear.
If Democrats could not achieve desired results using sheer violence, the Klan oftentimes voted for literacy tests and conducted voter fraud to dilute the black vote. This happened most frequently in districts composed of nearly equal numbers of African American and white voters, where the Klan felt they must assert control over Reconstructionist, more progressive racial systems.
The Klan also worked to restrict black economic empowerment. Any white people who encouraged black economic autonomy, like merchants who purchased cotton from black farmers, were also threatened, beaten, and killed. The Klan disassembled African American and Republican community-organizing initiatives by terrorizing black churches, as well as many schools established by the Freedmen’s Bureau.

Failed attempts to dismantle the Klan’s racial control

The Klan maintained its control since many witnesses were terrified to testify against a Klansman, fearing violent reprisal.
In response, Congress passed the Force Acts of 1870, which required the South to fully recognize the guarantee of equal protection stipulated by the Fourteenth Amendment. Since the Force Acts inadequately addressed persistent violence, Congress passed the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 soon thereafter. The Ku Klux Klan Act was the first piece of US legislation that made individuals and states punishable under federal law for hate crimes or disenfranchising citizens on the basis of race. President Ulysses S. Grant used the Act to challenge Klan activity, which was most prevalent in South Carolina.
Yet as Reconstruction came to a close, so did counter-Klan measures. White supremacists gradually reasserted control over the South as the system of Jim Crow segregation took hold. The Klan would experience a huge resurgence in the 1920s with the nativist movement, and another uprising in the 1950s following Brown v. Board of Education. At its height in the mid-1920s, the KKK had four million members nationwide dedicated to intimidating, torturing, and killing African Americans and allied activists.
The KKK still exists today.

What do you think?

How did the KKK contribute to the polarization and sectional alignment of political parties in the late nineteenth century?
How did the KKK change or maintain the cultural landscape of the antebellum South?
How did Congress expand federal control over hate crime? How successful were their measures?

Want to join the conversation?

  • leaf red style avatar for user Carla Cristina Almeida
    This is absolutely horrifying. It makes me wonder why many other countries used the system of slavery at some point of their History but none of them ended up with a terrorist organization that hates and kills African Americans, is it because the Federal Government was too lenient? Why did the hatred for blacks grow with such strength?
    (56 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Elizabeth.Akin1982
    Actually the Klan wasn't founded by Forrest. It was founded by six former Confederate officers as a social group that eventually evolved into a terrorist organization. Forrest was respected and looked up to by these officers who later invited him into the group, where he rose to the status of Grand Wizard. Eventually he gave orders for the group to disband and the first incarnation of the KKK died out.
    (35 votes)
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  • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Elisabeth
    why are people still part of the KKK if they don't do anything violent. not that I want them to, but would you just sit their and tell everyone your beliefs on the subject?
    (11 votes)
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    • leaf green style avatar for user .
      They do, but KKK is now smaller,so less violence would happen. They could still burn houses and do crimes, but they want to keep it at minimal or else the KKK will die out.
      (13 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user alecxander.daggett
    Did the guy who started the KKK get killed for this or was it just age?
    (11 votes)
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    • blobby blue style avatar for user lilhuddy
      No, it was just age. If someone killed a Klan member they and their families would be killed. As well as their dog. Not only would they be killed, but they would be tortured first. Then there house would be burned down. So no, he wasn’t murdered, it was age.
      (8 votes)
  • winston default style avatar for user faithdg0506
    was the ku klux klan thorn in jail
    (3 votes)
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    • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Polina Vitić
      Klan members have been convicted and served time in prison for various crimes over the years. Some of these convictions are thought to have negatively influenced Klan membership, with this loss of members even leading to the demise of the second and third incarnations of the KKK.

      Here are a few examples:

      In 1925, the "Grand Dragon" of the Indiana Klan was convicted of the murder, rape, and kidnapping of Madge Oberholtzer. He received a life sentence but was paroled in 1950. However, between 1925 and 1928, nearly all 250,000+ members quit the Klan in Indiana.

      The Mississippi Klan member who assassinated civil rights leader Medgar Evers in 1963 was tried three times and finally convicted of first-degree murder in 1994. He spent the remainder of his life in custody.

      Alabama Klan members bombed the 16th Street Baptist Church in 1963, killing four young girls: Addie Mae Collins, Carol Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley. Three of these men were convicted of murder decades later - one in 1977, the others in 2001 and 2002. All three received life sentences.

      Several Mississippi Klan members, including one "Imperial Wizard" as well as members of local law enforcement, were convicted of the 1964 murder of three civil rights workers: James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner. The seven convicted men began serving time in 1970, but all were out of prison by 1977. An additional Klan member was convicted of manslaughter in 2005, and spent the remainder of his life in custody. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 is thought to have gained crucial support due to public outrage over the disappearance and murder of these young men.

      These are just a few examples of KKK members who were convicted and did serve time for murder and other crimes. The vast majority, however, were never prosecuted.
      (22 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user 23dmorton
    How did Congress expand federal control over hate crime? How successful were their measures?
    (11 votes)
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  • leafers seed style avatar for user Aayush Patel
    Why did the KKK also target people of their own race such as "carpetbaggers" and "scalawags"?
    (5 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user Ajay Shankar
      Remember that the KKK targeted those not of their own race and those who tried to help the former slaves. To the KKK, helping former slaves or otherwise interacting with them positively was a taboo and would not be tolerated. Carpetbaggers and scalawags, particularly, invoked the wrath of the KKK.
      (12 votes)
  • duskpin seedling style avatar for user janiyah.pinckney0381
    Wait...it STILL exists?! WHY?
    (6 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user lucasbillings
    why did the kk dislike the republican party?
    (4 votes)
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  • leafers ultimate style avatar for user Avonlea Brickman
    Wow. Does anyone else agree that the last sentence, "The KKK still exists today." is unnerving? Especially how it is separate from the other paragraphs.
    (8 votes)
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