Atrocities against black Americans, during Reconstruction as well as today, were not random acts by individual white racists. Rather they were forms of organized violence with social and political intimidation as primary objectives. The historical operations of a prominent American terrorist organization In South Carolina clearly suggests this. The Ku Klux Klan remains a viable antiblack organization in the American South today, in spite of recent federal inquiry into its activities.A focal point of historical controversy about Reconstruction has been the role of the Ku Klux Klan.Racists have pointed to the Klan as an example of the courage with which white Southerners resisted the supposed horrors of Reconstruction while those who resist the racist position, despite differences in their appraisals of Reconstruction, have joined in condemning the Klan for its violence and disregard of lawful government.
What is the Klan’s general significance?For both the racist and the supporter of civil rights the Ku Klux Klan stands as a symbol, “either a glamorous or sinister symbol” as Francis Simkins wrote, “for the arousal of issues of race, religion and patriotism in which all Americans . . . are vitally and perennially concerned.” (Simkins 1939, 50)The insurgencies of hate are rarely isolated phenomena; organized hate groups reflect the diffuse sympathies, confused longings, and aspirations of large segments of society.
Perhaps more than any other group in the United States, the Ku Klux Klan that rose in the post-Civil War South illustrates how hatred can be transformed, redefined, sustained, and mobilized around the energies of those whom society has failed in one way r another. During the past 125 years, the Klan has played an often significant part in the development and proliferation of the hate movement. Even more than its episodes of overt violence, the Klan illustrates the pivotal role of ideologies in forming a climate of opinion receptive to and supportive of politically motivated violence (Kelly and Rufus Schatzberg 1992, 117-26)The name Ku Klux Klan is from Kulios, a Greek word meaning “bonded circle.” Because many original members were of Scottish-Irish descent, the word “Klan” was added (Wade 1987, 17). Apparently, it was not born in hatred and bitterness but evolved rapidly into a intimidating force that became more than a collection of pranksters.
Originally, Klaverns operated independently; as the movement expanded into countries and other states, organization was needed. In time, a hierarchical structure of offices, duties, roles, and statutes emerged. Passwords, oaths of secrecy, costumes, and elaborate rituals were devised. The infamous cross-burning ceremony was derived either from the film, Birth of a Nation, or from Sir Walter Scott’s The Lady of the Lake. A “Kalendar” lists dates and events from the Klan’s origins and its 1915 rebirth; it has become part of the Klan’s institutional paraphernalia and tarnished history.
Like other terrorist organizations, the Klan has resorted to violence for a variety of reasons. It has often defined itself in the defense of privileges its members perceived to be threatened. Not rigidly committed to a specific historic cause but more flexible and skillful psychologically than most extremist hate groups, the Klan has deftly redefined both its mission and enemies to retain its viability and appeal.The Ku Klux Klan spread throughout the South, and although Congress passed acts to safeguard the rights of blacks and put an end to the Klan, the Enforcement Act of 1870 was ineffectual. The Klan was not smashed; it transformed itself and assimilated itself into hundreds of local power structures. The Klan’s purpose never really changed; its overriding aim was to resist and suppress, violently if necessary, any attempt by minorities to gain any political and economic power (Friedman 1993, 109 – 121).Since the 1870s, the Klan’s reign of terror in the South never diminished; its periodic resurgence and decline may speak more to its success than its failures.
It often assumed power directly or indirectly, but it was not just marginal. It remained at the center of power. The cycles of growth and decline mark periods of influence, repudiation, and success. When Klan members became government officials, the Klan’s ideological principals of white supremacy gathered social strength and its ideas and social practices were incorporated into local and regional government policy. The image of an outlaw terrorist organization faded. A decline in Klan influence provoked the appearance of the outlandish rituals, costumes, and public displays of militant hatred, while its success as a powerful force in local government meant that its public spectacles of defiant intolerance diminished.Formed around 1867 by Confederate veterans as a secret society determined to resist Northern Reconstructionist policies, the Klan sought to preserve white supremacy in the newly emancipated South (Chalmers 1981, 33). As an irre dentist movement, it vowed to restore the South’s antebellum heritage, to resist Northern occupation, and to oppose the Reconstructionist’s social, political, and economic reformations (Randel 1956, 94).
Estimates of early Klan membership suggest that it was at first a comparatively small reactionary group. The Klan’s modest size may be explained by its extreme views that necessarily limited its appeal. It also failed to mobilize truly mass support, which requires time, skill, effort, and constant mobilization (Gurr 1987, 549-78). No matter how widespread popular dissatisfaction may be, if a movement expects to survive and thrive, it must constantly recruit members.
During its early existence, those sympathetic to the Klan may have feared open identification with a dissident organization. Lack of recruitment and of identification with it may have provoked the Klan into premature violence in order to portray itself as strong and popular.Blacks symbolized to the South defeat and became the early victims of the movement. One purpose behind the humiliation of blacks was excirational; threats to black families, cross burnings, and other acts of intimidation were meant to inspire timid whites to further acts of vengeance. In exciting white violence, the Klan served as a social catalyst, not as a substitute for mass revolt.In the 1870s, federal troops were withdrawn from the Southern states, and occupational governments were returned to local control. Although blacks were technically free, they profoundly altered the ways in which, first Southerners, and then people in the rest of the nation, began to make sense of the Civil War’s consequences. Society and the dogmas of liberty were no longer comfortable abstractions but became for many a series of afflictions.
The defeat of the South had created a mass psychological reaction that significantly depressed people; the impact of the cultural crisis there was far more violent than its transformation to a new social order. What happened in the South was more than the sum of the sufferings inflicted, the millions lost, the institutions irreparably shattered, and the people uprooted; it was an education by shock. Panic overshadowed events. This panic was often significantly disproportionate to the losses of those who were most afraid; despair became the tone and motif of the period. Both blacks and white, rich and poor were deprived of their security and left impotent in the face of the war’s disasters.
In the South of 1865, everything seemed to have disintegrated at once. Southerners of all classes and both races at first had neither a sense of history nor the consolation of traditional values. They were, each in their own way, oppressed by forces that were incomprehensible and therefore all the more humiliating. They were oppressed by more than an economic collapse; their traditional social institutions, customs, and folkways failed them as the calamity of the war and its aftermath made themselves felt (Parrington 1958).The agony of losing a world, of losing one’s moorings, can be personally terrifying.
The crisis in the social order of the South occurred at an accelerated rate, causing a sudden rupture that was wrongly understood to be the fault of the former slaves. In fact, ex-slaves began to be blamed for the South’s defeat in the war. During the crisis, new signals emerged marking an instantaneous break with other lifestyles and other needs. People’s lives derived substance from fear and a struggle for expression in a bleak social setting that became ahistorical and unconstitutional. Southern whites had once needed only to adapt their lives to the externals of society; after the war, many were directly menaced by society and physically victimized by it, much as black ex-slaves had experienced society for almost two centuries. The crisis was not a mere disenchantment capable of being endured and overcome; it was a profound paralysis.
This despair was not merely poignant; the brutality of the white response became an expression of the need to survive. The Klan fed on the paranoid feelings of despair.The social milieu of the Klan was a psychologically fractured postrevolutionary society. Individuals saw themselves moving through a succession of situations linked only by surface symbolic consistency. The movement and rhythms of life in the defeated white South lacked the familiar cohesiveness provided by the antebellum culture. In the absence of cultural attachments, social conflicts intensified. The enfranchisement of blacks and adverse aspects of a disintegrating traditional life led Southern whites to involvement in and support for extremist groups. The Klan seized opportunistically upon the pervasive rapport among the discontented as a basis for mobilization (Kelly 1973, 220-37).
It infused some sense of solidarity and promulgated myths of racial unity, and through its criminal activities and attacks, it provided models of defiance and challenge to the intrusive Northern authorities, thereby breaking the inhibitions of reflexive obedience. A major Klan objective was to heighten the moral isolation of government by forcing it to act in a void that degraded its authority and tarnished its legitimacy. When federal troops were finally withdrawn in the 1870s, blacks remained free but intimidated by segregation laws that prevented their voting and that re-created the racial caste system (Genovese 1974).The overt racial rancor subsided momentarily until the great transatlantic immigrants reignited Klan fervor at the turn of the century. By the end of World War I, millions had flocked to America from eastern and southern Europe.
Poles, Russians, Hungarians, Italians, Greeks, and Jews fled a war-torn Europe for real or imagined opportunities in the United States. The Klan’s natural fear and contempt of strangers was strengthened by another exclusionary movement that developed in those regions of the United States most heavily affected by the waves of immigrant settlers needing jobs and housing.Several nativist organizations each fixed upon some internal alien influence as a grave threat to national unity. Generally, all nativist regimes are defensive psychologically and chauvinistic politically. They lash out rhetorically and violently against a religious or racial peril and sometimes against a perceived revolutionary threat (Higham 1975, 303). Nativists assume that foreigners are disloyal and inherently threatening to the nativists’ way of life. Their deep, unexpressed, unconscious fear is of being dominated by others in much the same way that they wish to control and influence the lives of newcomers.
In the South, the strains of unregulated capitalism produced more insecurity than most people could tolerate. Moreover, previous idealistic beliefs yielded to a doctrine of racial determinism that both reflected and intensified the sense of insecurity. The new racist ideology concerning blacks, Jews, Catholics, eastern and southern Europeans, and Asians heightened feelings of vulnerability because it made cherished values and institutions dependent upon biological factors rather than upon their own intrinsic merits.A sweeping ethnocentrism was also aroused in the first decades of the twentieth century by the sheer scale and ethnic variety of the immigration (Jones 1960, 127). The problem was not just blacks any longer, the nativists believed; the great problem included outsiders of all kinds, alien in blood, faith, and heritage.
The United States was becoming so heterogeneous that every social problem could be construed by xenophobes and ultranationalists in terms of ethnic subversion. The force of prejudice against blacks, Catholics, Jews, Chinese, Japanese, and southern Europeans was embodied by the Klan to symbolize the convergence of antiminority feelings and to provide an outlet for every racial, religious, and ethnic hatred. The Klan offered a way to relieve the anxieties that had festered among the nation’s white Protestant majority. Unlike its earlier incarnation in the post-Civil War South, the revived Klan sought to purify America and restore the supremacy of the old stock. Its task was to cleanse the nation of its moral and racial pollution (Lipset and Raab, 1970).In 1915, the original Klan had all but vanished in the South as Southern sectionalism disappeared in the swell of industrial growth and urbanization.
The emerging new Klan possessed a demonology more inclusive than its predecessor; it stressed anti-Semitic themes, and its influence spread chiefly in rural towns and villages.Jews were represented as part of an international plot to control America through big-city vices-bootlegging, gambling, and prostitution. Consistent with its original mission of maintaining white supremacy, the new Klan pursued its social objective of controlling blacks but added religion and nationalism to its causes and grievances. Unlike its former self, the Knights of the Klan were more restrictive in membership. The original Klan admitted white men of every background; the new Knights accepted only native-born, Protestant whites and stressed antiblack, antiSemitic, and antiforeign attitudes with equal fervor (Bennett, 1988).Between 1915 and 1920, the new Klan recruited approximately five thousand members. Expansion was particularly brisk in 1920. Negative social and economic trends–depression, prohibition, immigration, isolationism, and disillusionment–fueled the Knights’ plans.
The Klan had no economic program except its enforcement of discrimination through force and intimidation. Hoping to influence votes for its political candidates, the Knights threatened businesses that catered to blacks, burned commercial enterprises, and marched in flamboyant parades (Higham 1988, 91).White supremacy remained a defining characteristic as the Klan spread north and west, but it is not the only issue that preoccupied the Knights. The Klan also attacked whites sympathetic to blacks and embraced the anti-Catholic, anti-Semitic views within other nativist movements.
Hate becomes more viable and perhaps more tolerable as it envelops more targets and becomes more familiar and guileless. Had the Klan remained a single-issue organization concerned only with white supremacy, its life expectancy would have been seriously abbreviated by its successes, by the often fickle changes in public opinion, and by the mass exodus of blacks from the South (Cose 1992, 204).The Knights’ outcry of anti-Papist, anti-Catholic feeling was closely related to the growth of religious fundamentalism in America. Given its religious convictions, the Klan served as an excellent barometer of the militant repudiation of a liberalized gospel and a secularized culture that began to make itself felt in the closing years of the Progressive Era.As World War I exhausted itself in Europe, the political cynicism and spiritual fatigue of its aftermath fueled the Klan’s deluded prophecies that America and Americanism were threatened by the Bolshevism, Papism, endless crime, political intrigue, and moral chaos sweeping through European countries ravaged by the fighting. The Klan’s campaign of fear urged isolationism.
Patriotism and Christianity became the principal values to the Knights of the KKK. Ironically, as a censor and moral organization, it was often impatient with legally constituted authority and violated the law opportunistically. Local statutes could not stand in the way of Klan, as they sought to punish those “deviants” who violated its sense of regeneration and the ancient standards of Americanism.
Illegal boycotts, petty extortions, larceny, arson, and murder–more serious crimes than night riding and hell-raising–were all part of the Klan’s vigilantism (Sapp 1991, 98-117).By 1921, the Klan claimed to be operating in forty-five states. In 1924, membership reached three million. The Klan was, at the time, deeply embedded within American society; it was no longer a rural, sectional, marginal irritant. From the 1920s, it had situated itself in the burgeoning cities of the economically booming South, Midwest, and Southwest; it agitated among those who feared urbanization, the influential growth of the trade unions in political affairs, and the proliferation of high-tech industries.
Klan political leverage soon became significant among many white citizens in regions where economic growth was accelerating (Higham 1988, 182).The zenith of the Knights’ notoriety and influence occurred in 1924 at the Democratic convention, which was deeply divided over a resolution that denounced the Klan by name. William Jennings Bryan, a charismatic fundamentalist and self-styled knight-errant of the oppressed rural agrarian class, said: “We can exterminate Ku Kluxism better by recognizing their honesty and teaching them that they are wrong.” Bryan was unmercifully heckled from the gallery; the Democratic Party by 1924 was very closely identified with the trade unions, immigrants, and urban working classes.
These groups contained many Jews, blacks, Catholics, and other minorities-victims of the Klan-too many to heed advice from an apologist for hate and violence (Hofstadter 1994, 203).The Klan declined in power during the tumultuous 1930s and early 1940s when immigration lessened and Catholics and Jews ascended to economic and political power. The nation became preoccupied by World War II. The 1954 Supreme Court decision against segregation in public education was a flash point for hate mongering in the United States. All the bitterness of the past seemed to resurface in the four years following the Court’s momentous decision. Approximately 530 cases of racial violence attributed to the Klan or its sympathizers occurred in this period (Chalmers 1981, 87).
Within five years after the Brown v. the Board of Education decision, the Klan’s campaign of terror included six murders and more than forty felony assaults, bombings, and arsons at schools, churches, and homes. As the Civil Rights movement gained impetus in the 1960s, the Klan’s violence accelerated (Chalmers 1981, 91).The Klan’s resurgence during the Civil Rights era was indirectly aided by the government’s reaction to the leader of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Reverend Martin Luther King; Malcolm X, the charismatic Black Muslim activist associated with the Nation of Islam; and the Black Panther Party. The latter’s programs for community control, coupled with its controversial attitudes toward armed defense, heightened racial tensions. Malcolm X, in particular, sought to bring the issue of racism in the United States before the United Nations and had partially succeeded in embarrassing the American government before the world community. In response, the FBI defined Malcolm X’s organization, the Black Panthers, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference as dangerous and subversive.
A counterintelligence program to expose, disrupt, misdirect, and discredit these protest groups was initiated by the FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover (Clark, 1990, 392).At least twenty-five different factions of the Klan have been identified across the United States. In its ideological aspects, the Klan may be America’s oldest and most prominent terrorist organization. From its birth in Tennessee to the present, the Ku Klux Klan has rebuilt itself to focus on new targets of hate. However, its traditional victims have been and are American blacks.While the Klan rejects the value of ethnic identity among other groups, it cultivates separateness and racial-religious cohesion of its own.
If the Klan promoted an assimilationist ideology, insisting upon an ethnic of self-transformation for all, it would not constitute a serious social threat. Instead, it would create an emotional cul-de-sac for admirers and activists by generating hatred for others and alienation from what it defines as its birthright.The liabilities of each perspective are glaringly evident in Klan ideology. Assimilation into an American society that is multiethnic, multiracial, and multireligious is interpreted as disloyalty to the ancestral heritage. The Klan also adjures its followers to realize themselves through the group to which they belong and to forgo opportunity in the interest of separateness and cohesion. Demanding that others sacrifice their groups for the sake of individual assimilation into their version of the Anglo-centric culture, the Klan would put individual white Americans at the mercy of its ideology.
Their legacy of hatred has transformed itself and continues to thrive. Certainly no other movement in the United States has disrupted so many lives or stirred so much hatred. The passage of more than 150 years has done little to alter the perspective of its true believers. What should be of concern are the general lessons that the Klan’s success and failures might teach.
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