A Hundred Years of Terror

A special report prepared
by the
Southern Poverty Law Center
Montgomery, AL 36104

The Ku Klux Klan's long history of violence grew out of the resentment and hatred many white Southerners felt in the aftermath of the Civil War. Blacks, having won the struggle for freedom from slavery, were now faced with a new struggle against widespread racism and the terrorism of the Ku Klux Klan. While the menace of the KKK has peaked and waned over the years, it has never vanished.

The bare facts about the birth of the Ku Klux Klan and its revival half a century later are baffling to most people today. Little more than a year after it was founded, the secret society thundered across the war-torn South, sabotaged Reconstruction governments and imposed a reign of terror and violence that lasted three or four years. And then as rapidly as it had spread, the Klan faded into the history books. After World War I a new version of the Klan sputtered to life and brought many parts of the nation under its paralyzing grip of racism and bloodshed. Then, having grown to be a major force for the second time, the Klan again receded into the background. This time it never quite disappeared, but it never again commanded such widespread support.

Today it seems incredible that an organization so violent, so opposed to the American principles of justice and equality, could twice in the nation's history have held such power. How did the Ku Klux Klan - one of the nation's first terrorist groups - so instantly seize the South in the aftermath of the Civil War? Why did it so quickly vanish? How could it have risen so rapidly to power in the 1920's and then so rapidly loose that power? And why is this ghost of the Civil War still haunting America today with hatred, violence and sometimes death for its enemies and its own members?

The answers do not lie on the surface of American history; they are deeper than the events of the turbulent 1960's, the parades and cross burnings and lynching of the 1920's, beyond even the Reconstruction era and the Civil War. The story begins, really, on the frontier, where successive generations of Americans learned hard lessons about survival. Those lessons produced some of the qualities of life for which the nation is most admired--fierce individualism, enterprising inventiveness and the freedom to be whatever a person wants to be and go wherever a new road leads.

But the frontier spirit included other traits as well, and one was a stubborn reliance on "frontier justice" - an instant, private, and often violent method of settling differences without involving lawyers or courts. Vigilante justice became the motivation for many who later rode with the Ku Klux Klan.

A more obvious explanation of the South's widespread acceptance of the Klan is found in the institution of slavery. Freedom for slaves represented for many white Southerners a bitter defeat - a defeat not only of their armies in the field but of their economic and social way of life. It was an age-old nightmare come true, for early in Southern life whites in general and plantation owners in particular had begun to view the large number of slaves living among them as a potential threat to their property and their lives.

A series of bloody slave revolts in Virginia and other parts of the South led to the widespread practice of night patrols - white men specially deputized for the purpose of prowling Southern roads enforcing the curfew for slaves, looking for runaways, and guarding rural areas against the threat of black uprisings. They were authorized by law to give a specific number of lashes to any violators they caught. The memory of these legal night riders and their whips was still fresh in the minds of both defeated Southerners and liberated blacks when the first Klansmen took to those same roads in 1866.

Aftermath of War

The Klan grew out of white Southern anger over the Civil War defeat and the Reconstruction that followed. Northerners saw in the Klan an attempt of unrepentant Confederates to win through terrorism what they had been unable to win on the battlefield. Such a simple view did not totally explain the Klan's sway over the South, but there is little doubt that many a Confederate veteran exchanged his rebel gray for the hoods and sheets of the invisible empire.

And the conditions in the South immediately after the war added to Southerners' fears and frustrations. Cities, plantations and farms were ruined; people were impoverished and often hungry; there was an occupation army in their midst; and Reconstruction governments threatened to usurp the traditional white ruling authority. In the first few months after the fighting ended, white Southerners had to contend with the losses of life, property and, in their eyes, honor. The time was ripe for the Ku Klux Klan to ride.

Origins of the Ku Klux Klan

The origin of the Ku Klux Klan was a carefully guarded secret for years, although there were many theories to explain its beginnings. One Popular notion held that the Ku Klux Klan was originally a secret order of Chinese opium smugglers. Another claimed it was begun by Confederate prisoners during the war. The most ridiculous theory attributed the name to some ancient Jewish document referring to the Hebrews enslaved by Egyptian pharaohs.

In fact the beginning of the Klan involved nothing so sinister, subversive or ancient as the theories supposed. It was the boredom of small-town life that led six young Confederate veterans to gather around a fireplace one December evening in 1865 and form a social club. The place was Pulaski, Tennessee, near the Alabama border. When they reassembled a week later, the six young men were full of ideas for their new society. It would be secret, to heighten the amusement of the thing, and the titles for the various officers were to have names as preposterous-sounding as possible, partly for the fun of it and partly to avoid any military or political implications.

Thus, the head of the group was called the Grand Cyclops. His assistant was the Grand Magi; there was to be a Grand Turk to greet all candidates for admission, a Grand Scribe to act as secretary, Night Hawks for messengers and a Lictor to be the guard. The members, when the six young men found some to join, would be called Ghouls. But what name to call the society itself? The founders were determined to come up with something unusual and mysterious. Being well-educated, they turned to Greek. After tossing around a number of ideas, Richard R. Reed suggested the word "kuklos," from which the English words "circle and "cycle" are derived. Another member, Captain John B. Kennedy, had an ear for alliteration and added the word "clam." After tinkering with the sound for a while, group settled on the "Ku Klux Klan." The selection of the name, chance though it was, had a great deal to do with the Klan's early success. Something about the sound aroused curiosity and gave the fledgling club an immediate air of mystery, as did the initials K.K.K., which were soon to take on such terrifying significance.

Soon after the founders named the Klan, they decided to a bit of showing off and so disguised themselves in sheets and galloped their horses through the quiet streets of little Pulaski. Their ride created such a stir that the men decided to adopt the sheets as the official regalia of the Ku Klux Klan, and they added to the effect by making grotesque masks and tall pointed hats. The founders also performed elaborate initiation ceremonies for new members. Their ceremony was similar to the hazing popular in college fraternities and consisted of blindfolding the candidate, subject him to a series of silly oaths and rough handling, and finally bringing him before a "royal alter" where he was to be invested with"royal crown." The altar turned out to be a mirror and the crown two large donkey's ears. Ridiculous though it sounds today, that was the high point of the earliest activities of the Ku Klux Klan.

Had that been all there was to the Ku Klux Klan, it probably would have disappeared as quietly as it was born. But at some point in early 1866 the Club, enlarged with new members from nearby towns, began to have a chilling effect on local blacks. The intimidating night rides were soon the centerpiece of the hooded order: bands of white-sheeted ghouls paid late night visits to black homes, admonishing the terrified occupants to behave themselves and threatening more visits if they didn't. It didn't take long for the threats to be converted into violence against blacks who insisted on exercising their new rights and freedom. Before its six founders realized what had happened, the Ku Klux Klan had become something they may not have originally intended--something deadly serious.

Mischief Turns Malicious

From that beginning in the little town of Pulaski, Tenn., the Klan began to grow. Historians disagree on the intention of the six founders, but it is known that word quickly spread about the new organization whose members met in secret and rode with their faces hidden, who practiced elaborate rituals and initiation ceremonies.

Much of the Klan's early reputation was based on mischief. One favorite Klan tactic was for a white sheeted Klansman wearing a ghoulish mask to ride up to a black home at night and demand water. When the well bucket was offered, the Klansman would gulp it down and demand more, having actually poured the water through a rubber tube that flowed into a leather bottle concealed beneath his robe. After draining several buckets, the rider would exclaim that he had not had a drink since he died on the battlefield at Shiloh, and gallop into the night, leaving the impression that ghosts of Confederate dead were riding the countryside.

In time, the malicious mischief turned to outright violence. The presence of armed white men roving the countryside at night reminded many blacks of the pre-war slave patrols. The fact that Klansmen rode with their faces covered intensified blacks' suspicion and fear. Whippings were used first, but within months there were bloody clashes between Klansmen and blacks, Northerners who had come South, or Southern unionists.

White Rule Victimized Blacks

By the time the six Klan founders met in December, 1865, the opening phase of Reconstruction was nearly complete. All eleven of the former rebel states had been rebuilt on astonishingly lenient terms which allowed many of the ex-Confederate leaders to return to positions of power. Southern state legislatures began enacting laws that made it clear that the aristocrats who ran them intended to yield none of their pre-war power over poor whites and especially over blacks. These laws became known as the Black Codes and in some cases they amounted to a virtual re-enslavement of blacks.

In Louisiana the Democratic convention resolved that "we hold this to be a Government of White People, made and to be perpetuated for the exclusive benefit of the White Race, and....that the people of African descent cannot be considered as citizens of the United States." Mississippi and Florida in particular enacted vicious black codes, other southern states (except North Carolina) passed somewhat less severe versions, and President Andrew Johnson did nothing to prevent them from being enforced.

These laws and the violence that erupted against blacks and union supporters in the South outraged Northern s who just a few months before had celebrated victory not only over the Confederacy, but its system of slavery as well. In protest of the defiant Black Codes, Congress refused to seat the new Southern senators and representatives when it reconvened in December 1865 after a long recess. Thus at the moment the fledgling Klan was born in Pulaski, the stage was set for a showdown between Northerners determined not to be cheated out of the fruits of their victory and die-hard Southerners who refused to give up their supremacy over blacks.

Ironically, the increasingly violent activities of the Klan throughout 1866 tended to help prove the argument of Radical Republicans in the North, who wanted harsher measures taken against Southern governments as part of their program to force equal treatment for blacks. Partly as a result of news reports of Klan violence in the South, the Radicals won overwhelming victories in the Congressional elections of 1866.

In early 1867 they made a fresh start at Reconstruction. Congress overrode President Johnson's veto and passed the Reconstruction Acts, which abolished the ex-Confederate state governments and divided 10 of the 11 former rebel states into military districts. The military were charged with enrolling black voters and holding elections for new con- stitutional conventions in each of the 10 states, which led to the creation of the Radical Reconstruction Southern governments.

Ghost Riders

In April 1867, a call went out for all known Ku Klux Klan chapters or dens to send representatives to Nashville, Tennessee, for a meeting that would plan the Klan response to the new federal Reconstruction policy.

Throughout the summer and fall, the Klan steadily had become more violent. Thousands of the white citizens of Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi had by this time joined the Klan and many now viewed the escalating violence with growing alarm - not necessarily because they had sympathy for the victims but because the night riding was getting out of their control. Anyone could put on a sheet and a mask and ride into the night to commit assault, robbery, rape, arson or murder.

At the Nashville Klan meeting, leaders sought to grapple with these problems and decide just what sort of organization the Klan would be. They created a chain of command and sanctioned white supremacy as the fundamental creed of the Ku Klux Klan. Throughout the summer of 1867 the invisible empire changed, shedding the antics that had brought laughter and taking on the full nature of a secret and sinister force.

All the now-familiar tactics of the Klan date from this period - the threats delivered to blacks, radicals and other enemies, the night raids on individuals they singled out for rougher treatment, and the mass demonstrations of masked and robed Klansmen designed to cast fear over a troubled community.

By early 1868, stories about Klan activities were appearing in newspapers nationwide and Reconstruction governors realized they faced nothing less than an insurrection by a terrorist organization. Orders went out from state capitols and Union army headquarters to suppress the Klan.

Invisible Government

But it was too late. From middle Tennessee, the Klan quickly was established in nearby counties and then in North and South Carolina. In some counties the Klan became the de facto law, an invisible government that state officials could not control.

When Tennessee Governor William G. Brownlow attempted to plant spies within the Klan, he found the organization knew as much about his efforts as he did. One Brownlow spy who tried to join the Klan was found strung up in a tree. Later another spy was stripped and mutilated, and a third was stuffed in a barrel in Nashville and rolled into the Cumberland River where he drowned.

With the tacit sympathy and support of most white citizens often behind, the Klan worked behind a veil that was impossible for Brownlow and other Reconstruction governors to pierce. But even though a large majority of white Southerners opposed the Radical state governments, not all of them approved of the hooded order's brand of vigilante justice. During its first year, the Klan's public marches and parades were sometimes hooted and jeered at by townspeople who looked upon them as a joke. Later, when the Klan began to use guns and whips to make its point, some civic leaders spoke out against the violence.

But in the late 1860's white Southern voices against the Klan were in the minority. One of the Klan's greatest strengths during this period was the large number of editors, ministers, former Confederate officers and political leaders who hid behind its sheets and guided its actions.

Among them, none was more widely respected in the South than the Klan's reputed leader, Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest, a legendary Confederate cavalry officer who settled in Tennessee and apparently joined the Klan fairly soon after it began to make a name for itself. Forrest became the Klan's first imperial wizard, and in 1867 and 1868 he was its chief missionary, traveling over the South establishing new chapters and quietly advising its new members.

The ugly side of the Ku Klux Klan, the mutilations and floggings, lynching and shootings, began to spread across the South in 1868, and any words of caution that may have been expressed at the Nashville meeting were submerged beneath a stream of bloody deeds.

The KKK's First Death

As the violence escalated, it turned to general lawlessness and some Klan groups even began fighting each other. In Nashville, a gang of outlaws who adopted the Klan disguise came to be known as the Black Ku Klux Klan, and for several months middle Tennessee was plagued by a guerrilla war between the real and bogus Klans.

The Klan was also coming under increased attack by Congress and the Reconstruction state governments. The leaders of the Klan realized that the order's end was at hand, at least as any sort of organized force.

It is widely believed that Forrest ordered the Klan disbanded in January 1869, but the surviving document is rather ambiguous (some historians think Forrest's "order" was just a trick so he could deny responsibility or knowledge of Klan atrocities).

Whatever the actual date, it is clear that as an organized body across the South, the KKK had ceased to exist by the end of 1869.

That did not end the violence, however, and as atrocities became more widespread, Radical legislatures throughout the region passed harsher laws, imposed martial law in some Klan-dominated counties, and actively hunted Klan leaders.

In 1871 Congress held hearings on the Klan and passed a tough anti-Klan law modeled after a North Carolina statute. Under the new federal law, Southerners lost their jurisdiction over the crimes of assault, robbery and murder and the president was authorized to declare martial law. Night riding and the wearing of masks were expressly prohibited. Hundreds of Klansmen were arrested but few actually went to prison.

These laws probably dampened the enthusiasm for the Klan, but they can hardly be credited with destroying it. The fact was, by the mid- 1870's white Southerners had retaken control of most Southern state governments and didn't need the Klan as much as before. Klan terror had proven very effective at keeping black voters away from the polls. Some black officeholders were hanged and many more were brutally beaten. White Southern Democrats won elections easily, and passed laws taking away many rights that blacks had won during Reconstruction.

The result was a system of segregation which was the law of the land for more than 80 years. This system was called "separate but equal," which was half true - everything was separate, but nothing was equal.

Born Again

During the last half of the nineteenth century, memories of the Klan's brief grip on the South faded, and its bloody deeds were forgotten by many whites who were once in sympathy with its cause. On the national scene, two events served to set the stage for the Ku Klux Klan to be reborn in the twentieth century.

The first was massive immigration, bringing some 23 million people from Great Britain, Germany, Italy, Hungary, and Russia and a great cry of opposition from some Americans. The American Protective Association, organized in 1887, reflected the attitude of many Americans who believed that the nation was being swamped by alien people. This organization a secret, oath-bound group was especially strong in the mid-west where the Ku Klux Klan would later draw much of its strength.

The other major event which prepared the ground for the Klan's return was World War I. On the European battlefields, blacks served in the uniform of their country and saw a new world open up before them. Back at home, Americans learned suspicion of anything alien, and shunned President Wilson's League of Nations.

In the South, yet another series of events occurred which helped breathe life into the Klan several decades later. In the 1890's an agrarian Populist movement tried to build a coalition of blacks and poor whites against the mill owners, large landholders and conservative elite of the Old South. The answer of the aristocracy was the old cry of white supremacy combined with the manipulation of black votes, and the Populists were substantially turned back in every Deep South state except Georgia and North Carolina. The result was a feeling across the South shared by both aristocracy and many poor whites that blacks had to be frozen out of their society.

Thus the 1890's marked the beginning of the Deep South's most divisive attempts to keep blacks politically, socially and economically powerless. Most segregation laws date from that period. It was also the beginning of a series of lynching of blacks by white mobs. The combination of legalized racism and the constant threat of violence eventually led to a major black migration to Northern cities.

William J. Simmons, a Spanish American War veteran-turned preacher-turned salesman, was a compulsive joiner, holding memberships in maybe a dozen different societies and two churches. But he had always dreamed of starting his own fraternal group and in the fall of 1915 he put his plans into action.

On Thanksgiving Eve, Simmons herded 15 fellow fraternalists onto a hired bus and drove them from Atlanta to nearby Stone Mountain. There, before a cross of pine boards, Simmons lit a match and the Ku Klux Klan of the 20th century was born.

But although Simmons adopted the titles and regalia of the original version, his new creation had little similarity at first to the Reconstruction Klan, which had officially ended in 1869.

Simmons' Klan was not unlike the dozens of benevolent societies then population America. There is little doubt that Simmons' ultimate purpose in forming the group was to make money. But growth at first was slow, even after America entered World War I in 1917 and the Klan had a real "purpose"-- that of defending the country from aliens, idlers and strike leaders.

Then, in 1920, Simmons met Edward Young Clarke and Elizabeth Tyler, two publicists who had formed a business in Atlanta. With the Klan's membership at only a few thousand, Simmons signed a contract with Clarke and Tyler giving them 80 percent of the profits from the dues of the new members Simmons so eagerly sought. The promoters used an aggressive new sales pitch--the Klan would be rabidly pro America, which to them meant rabidly anti-black, anti-Jewish and most importantly, anti-Catholic.

The new stance was graphically illustrated by Simmons when he was introduced to an audience of Georgia Klansmen and drew a Colt automatic pistol, a revolver and a cartridge belt from his coat and arranged them on the table before him. Plunging a Bowie knife into the table beside the guns, he issued an invitation: "Now let the Niggers, Catholics, Jews and all others who disdain my imperial wizardry, come out!"

Exploiting Fears

The message was clear--the new Klan was going to mean business. And that soon meant expanding its list of enemies to include Asians, immigrants, bootleggers, dope, graft, night clubs and road houses, violation of the Sabbath, sex, pre- and extra-marital escapades and scandalous behavior. The Klan, with its new mission of social vigilance, soon had organizers scouring the nation, probing for the communities' fears and then exploiting them to the hilt.

And the tactic was an overnight raging success. By the late summer of 1921 nearly 100,000 people had enrolled in the invisible empire, and at ten dollars a head (tax-free since the Klan was a "benevolent" society), the profits were impressive. While Simmons made speeches and tinkered with ritual, Clarke busied himself with expanding the treasury, launching Klan publishing and manufacturing firms and investing in real estate. The future looked very good.

But during that summer the Klan leaders in Atlanta ran into their first trouble--controlling their far-flung empire. While Klan officials talked of fraternal ideals in Atlanta, their members across the nation began to take seriously the fiery rhetoric the recruiters were using to drum up new initiation fees. Violence first flared in a rampage of whippings, tar-and-feathers raids and the particularly gruesome use of acid to brand the letters "KKK" on the foreheads of blacks, Jews and others they considered anti-American. Ministers, sheriffs, policemen, mayors and judges either ignored the violence or secretly participated. Few Klansmen were arrested, much less convicted.

The Klan Exposed

In September, the New York World began a series of expos‚ articles of the Klan, backed up by the revelations of an ex-recruiter. Another newspaper reported some of the internal gossip and financial manipulations within the Atlanta headquarters. And even more embarrassing was a story in the World that Clarke and Tyler had been arrested not quite fully clothed in a police raid on a bawdy house in 1919.

The article badly tarnished the Klan's moralistic image and began a serious rift within the ranks. The World's expose' also brought demands for countermeasures, and Congress responded in October, 1921, with hearings into the Klan's activities. Although the congressional inquiry so upset Clarke that he considered resigning, the actual hearings did little damage to the Klan. Simmons explained away the secrecy of the Klan as just part of the fraternal aspect of the organization; he disavowed any link between his Klan and the nightriders of Reconstruction days and he denied--just as Forrest had done 50 years earlier--any knowledge of or responsibility for the violence. The committee adjourned without action and the Klan benefited from all the publicity.

It almost seemed as if people in the rural areas of the country were determined to support whatever the big newspapers and Congress condemned. Following more articles in the World, these concentrating on the violent nature of the Klan, membership in the invisible empire exploded. "It wasn't until the newspapers began to attack the that it really grew," Simmons recalled later. "Certain newspapers also aided us by inducing Congress to investigate us. The result was that Congress gave us the best advertising we ever got. Congress made us."

Power Struggle

With the Klan's new strength came prolonged internal bickering. In the fall of 1922, with Texas dentist Hiram Wesley Evans leading the way, six conspirators made plans to dethrone Simmons. Evans became imperial wizard and in 1928, the conspirators saw a chance to grab permanent control of the Klan's property, worth millions of dollars by this time. When Clarke was indicted on a two-year-old morals charge, Evans was able to cancel the promoters lucrative contract with the Klan and thus seize control of the money-making dues apparatus. Mrs. Tyler had already resigned to get married, so that left only Simmons, who became furious when he realized that he had been out-maneuvered by Evans and his faction.

A full scale war was fought between the Evans' and Simmons' factions with lawsuits and countersuits, warrants and injunctions, all gleefully reported in the newspapers across the country. The fight spilled over into chapters in Texas and Pennsylvania and the resulted in the shooting of Simmons' lawyers by Evans' hot-headed chief publicity man. The power struggle ended in February, 1924, when Simmons agreed to a cash settlement.

The Klan continued to grow during this period of internal strife, but all of its weaknesses were laid open for America to see. The Klan promoted itself as an organization dedicated to defending the morals of the nation but there been too many charges of immorality against its leaders. Its supposed nonprofit status was badly undermined by the wrangling over finances and most of its vaunted secrecy was exposed in the reams of court documentation churned out by the feuding.

More Violence

And its violence was clearly revealed. Under Evans a wave of repression punctuated by lynchings, shootings and whippings swept over the nation in the early and mid-1920's and many communities were firmly in the grasp of the Klan's terror. The victims were usually blacks, Jews, Catholics, Mexicans and various immigrants, but sometimes they were white, Protestant, and female. Klansmen attacked people they considered "immoral" or "traitors" to the white race.

In Alabama, for example, a divorcee with two children was flogged for the crime of remarrying, and then given a jar of Vaseline for her wounds. In Georgia a woman was given 60 lashes for a vague charge of "immorality and failure to go to church." And when her 15-year-old son ran to her rescue, he received the same treatment. In both cases the leaders of the Klansmen responsible turned out to be ministers.

But such instances were not confined to the South--in Oklahoma Klansmen applied the lash to girls caught riding in automobiles with young men, and the Klan in the San Joaquin Valley in California were know to flog and torture women.

In a period when many women were fighting for the vote, for a place in the job market, and for personal and cultural freedom, the Klan claimed to stand for "pure womanhood" and frequently attacked women who sought independence.

Political Gains

During the period of its most uncontrolled violence, the Klan also experienced unprecedented political gains. In 1922 Texas voters sent Klansman Earl Mayfield to the U.S. Senate, and Klan campaigns helped defeat two Jewish congressmen who had headed the Klan inquiry. Klan efforts were credited with helping to elect governors in Georgia, Alabama, California and Oregon. In Colorado, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Indiana, and Ohio, the Klan also achieved major power between 1921 and 1924. And there were pockets of strength in many other areas.

With two million members, new recruits joining the secret rolls daily, a host of friendly politicians throughout the land and his internal enemies subdued for the moment, Evans wanted to influence the presidential election of 1924. He even shifted his national headquarters from Atlanta to Washington. The Klan had a foothold in both parties since Deep South members tended to be Democrats while Klansmen in the North and West were often Republicans.

But of the three major Presidential candidates, two were outspoken enemies of the Ku Klux Klan. And when the Democratic convention opened in New York, many Democrats were de- manding the party adopt a platform plank condemning the Ku Klux Klan. The resulting fight tore the convention apart and after days of bitter wrangling over the issue, the platform plank de- nouncing the Klan lost by a single vote.

Although politicians became increasingly uncomfortable with Klan allies as a result of the turmoil, the success of the Klan candidates across the nation in 1924 buoyed Evans' spirits. His notoriety peaked with a parade of 40,000 Klansmen down Washington's Pennsylvania Avenue to the Washington Monument in August 1925. Evans boasted of having helped re-elect Coolidge, of having secured passage of strict anti-immigration laws and of having checked the ambitions of Catholics and others intent on "perverting" the nation. All in all, the Klan was riding high in the saddle.

Losing Ground

But the decline of the Ku Klux Klan was just ahead. By 1926 when Evans tried to repeat the parade in Washington, only half as many marchers arrived and they were sobered by the news of political defeats in areas that a year before had been considered safe Klan strongholds.

Increasingly, the Klan suffered counterattacks by the clergy, the press and a growing number of politicians. Then, in 1927, a group of rebellious Klansmen in Pennsylvania broke away from the invisible empire and Evans promptly filed a $100,000 damage suit against them, confident that he could make an example of the rebels. To his surprise the Pennsylvania Klansmen fought back in the courts and the resulting string of witnesses told of Klan horrors, named members and spilled secrets. Newspapers carried accounts of testimony ranging from the kidnaping of a small girl from her grandparents in Pittsburgh to the beating of a Colorado Klansman who tried to quit the Klan. One particularly horrible story described how a man in Terrell, Texas, had been soaked in oil and burned to death before several hundred Klansmen. The enraged judge threw Evans' case out of court.

The next year, when the Democrats nominated Al Smith, a New York Catholic and longtime Klan foe, to run for president against the Republicans' Herbert Hoover, the Klan had a perfect issue which Evans hoped to use to whip up the faithful. But his invisible empire had melted from three million in 1925 to no more than several hundred thousand, and the Klan was no factor in Hoover's election. Americans had clearly tired of the divisive effect the masks, robes and burning crosses had on their communities. What was left of the Klan's clout disappeared as its old friends in office, sensing the new political winds, deserted the Klan in droves.

During the 1930's the nation wallowed in the Great Depression and the Klan continued to shrink. It became primarily a fraternal society, its leaders urging its members to stay out of trouble and the national headquarters hoarding its meager funds. After Franklin D. Roosevelt took office, the Klan began to complain that he was bringing too many Catholics and Jews into the government. Later they added the charge that the New Deal was tinged with communism. The red menace was used more and more by Evans and other Klansmen as their rallying cry, and communists eventually replaced Catholics as one of the Klan's foremost enemies.

But only in Florida was the Klan still a factor in the 1930's. With a statewide membership of about 30,000, the Klan was active in Jacksonville, Miami, and the citrus belt from Orlando to Tampa. In the orange groves of central Florida, Klansmen still operated in the old night riding style, intimidating blacks who tried to vote, "punishing" marital infidelity and clashing with union organizers. Florida responded with laws to unmask the nightriders, and a crusading journalist named Stetson Kennedy infiltrated and then exposed the Klan, rousing the anger of ministers, editors, politicians, and plain citizens.

New Leadership

Evans was replaced in 1939 by James A. Colescott of Indiana, who led the Klan in the Carolinas--where unions were crying to organize textile workers--and in Georgia, where night riding resulted in the flogging of some 50 people during a two-year period--including an Atlanta couple who were beaten to death in a love's lane. An outcry from the citizens of Georgia and South Carolina brought arrests and convictions, and the Klan was forced to retreat.

In the North, the Klan suffered another reversal when some local chapters began to exhibit ties with American Nazis, a move Southern Klansmen opposed but were basically powerless to stop. The end cam in 1944 when the Internal Revenue Service filed a lien against the Ku Klux Klan for back taxes of more $685,000 on profits earned during the 1920's. "We had to sell our assets and hand over the proceeds to the government and go out of business," Colescott recalled when it was over. "Maybe the government can make something out of the Klan--I never could." Powerful social forces were at work in the United States following World War II. A new wave of immigrants, particularly Jewish refugees, arrived from war-torn Europe. A generation of young black soldiers returned home after having been a part of a great army fighting for world freedom. In the South, particularly, labor unions began extensive campaigns to organize poorly paid workers. The migration from the farms to the cities continued, with a resulting shakeup in old political alliances. Bigots began to howl more loudly than in years, and a new Klan leader began to beat the drums of anti-black, anti-union, anti-Jew, anti-Catholic and anti-Communist hatred.

This man was Samuel Green, an Atlanta doctor. Green managed to reorganize the Klan in California, Kentucky, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Georgia, South Carolina, Tennessee, Florida and Alabama. But both federal and state bureaus of investigation prosecuted Klan lawlessness, and Green found that his hooded order was surrounded by enemies. The press throughout the South had become increasingly hostile, ministers were more and more inclined to attack the Klan and state and local governments passed laws against cross burnings and masks.

By the time of Green's death in 1949, the Klan was fractured by internal disputes and hounded by investigations from all sides in response to a wave of Klan violence in the South. Many Klansmen went to jail for floggings or other criminal acts. And by the early 1950's, membership in the invisible empire was at its lowest level since its rebirth on Stone Mountain in 1915.

Last update: 3/5/97

Return to United States History Index