Disbanded after Reconstruction, the KKK returned to national prominence in the 1920s to direct its hatred against African Americans, Catholics, Jews, and immigrants.

Overview

  • The Ku Klux Klan first arose in the South during the Reconstruction Era, but experienced a resurgence in the period immediately following the end of the First World War.
  • The KKK was a viciously racist organization that employed violence and acts of terror in order to assert white supremacy and maintain a strict racial hierarchy.
  • Although most of the KKK’s savagery was aimed at African Americans, their hatred extended to immigrants, Catholics, Jews, liberals, and progressives.
  • The revival of the KKK in the 1920s was demonstrative of a society coping with the effects of industrialization, urbanization, and immigration.

A brief history of the KKK

The Ku Klux Klan was a viciously racist white supremacist organization that first arose in the South after the end of the Civil War. Its members opposed the dismantling of slavery and sought to keep African Americans in a permanent state of subjugation to whites. During Reconstruction, the Klan employed violence and terror in the hopes of overthrowing Republican state governments in the South and maintaining the antebellum racial hierarchy.start superscript, 1, end superscript
The first Ku Klux Klan declined in the 1870s, partly due to the passage of federal legislation aimed at prosecuting the crimes of Klansmen, though some local cells continued to operate. The institutionalization of Jim Crow segregation in the South, moreover, meant that the KKK’s desire to maintain the antebellum racial hierarchy had been fulfilled.

The revival of the KKK

Although the KKK had reemerged in the South in 1915, it wasn’t until after the end of World War I that the organization experienced a national resurgence. Membership in the KKK skyrocketed from a few thousand to over 100,000 in a mere ten months.start superscript, 2, end superscript Local chapters of the KKK sprang up all over the country, and by the 1920s, it had become a truly national organization, with a formidable presence not just in the South, but in New England, the Midwest, and all across the northern United States.start superscript, 3, end superscript
The members of the Ku Klux Klan were mostly white Protestant middle-class men, and they framed their crusade in moral and religious terms.start superscript, 4, end superscript They saw themselves as vigilantes restoring justice, and they used intimidation, threats of violence, and actual violence to prevent African Americans, immigrants, Catholics, Jews, liberals, and progressives from attaining wealth, social status, and political power.
KKK members wore elaborate costumes with distinctive white hoods to mask their identities, and held nocturnal rallies to plot acts of terror and foment hatred against people deemed not “truly” American—basically, anyone who was not white and Protestant. The activities of Klansmen ranged from issuing threats and burning crosses to outright violence and atrocities such as tarring and feathering, beating, lynching, and assassination.
The revival of the KKK in the early twentieth century reflected a society struggling with the effects of industrialization, urbanization, and immigration. Klan chapters in major urban areas expanded as many white Americans became bitter and resentful about immigration from Asia and Eastern Europe. Klansmen complained that these immigrants were taking jobs away from whites and diluting the imagined “racial purity” of American society. Given that the country had been populated by immigrants from the beginning, such ideas of racial purity were complete myths.

Propaganda and protest

D.W. Griffith’s film Birth of a Nation, released in 1915, was a sympathetic portrayal of the Klan, and was hugely popular with American audiences. President Woodrow Wilson even arranged for a private screening of the film at the White House. The film both reflected and boosted the popularity of the Ku Klux Klan.
Movie poster for The Birth of a Nation, featuring a hooded man riding a horse and carrying a burning cross.
The film Birth of a Nation portrayed the KKK as a heroic organization and led to a resurgence in membership. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Many influential people and organizations came out in opposition to the KKK. Religious and civic groups launched campaigns to educate American society about the crimes and atrocities committed by Klansmen. Protestant ministers, Catholic priests, and Jewish rabbis stepped forward to condemn the organization in no uncertain terms. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was at the forefront of efforts to educate the public about the threat posed by the KKK. Such anti-Klan activism was highly effective, and the organization’s membership declined dramatically in the late 1920s.start superscript, 5, end superscript
The Ku Klux Klan would experience another revival in the South during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

What do you think?

What were the goals of the Ku Klux Klan? What sorts of tactics did they use to achieve those goals?
Why do you think the KKK experienced a resurgence in the 1920s?
How do you explain the rise and fall of the Klan in different periods of US history?
Article written by Dr. Michelle Getchell. This article is licensed under a CC-BY-NC-SA 4.0 license.
Notes
  1. For more on the rise of the KKK, see Elaine Frantz Parsons, Ku-Klux: The Birth of the Klan during Reconstruction (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016).
  2. John Hope Franklin and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans (New York: McGraw Hill, 2011), 357.
  3. See Thomas R. Pegram, One Hundred Percent American: The Rebirth and Decline of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s (Lanham, MD: Ivan R. Dee, 2011).
  4. Nancy K. MacLean, Behind the Mask of Chivalry: The Making of the Second Ku Klux Klan (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), xxii-xxv.
  5. For more on the KKK, see David M. Chalmers, Hooded Americanism: The History of the Ku Klux Klan (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1987); and Wyn Craig Wade, The Fiery Cross: The Ku Klux Klan in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998).